- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2002

A customer walks into Sullivan's toy store and can't find exactly what she wants. So the store's manager makes a few calls to find it, eventually sending her to another shop.

"There are so many specific items. If I don't have it in stock, I can at least run it down, at least offer them a service," says Tam Sullivan, the store's manager.

Mr. Sullivan focuses on service for neighborhood customers. Many have been coming to Sullivan's Toy and Art Supplies, located on Wisconsin Avenue in the District's Cleveland Park, for nearly 50 years.

"The key element is that our longevity has created return generations. It gives us a kind of warm and fuzzy feel," Mr. Sullivan says.

Which is appropriate for a store that sells warm and fuzzy things, like stuffed animals. Sullivan's is also stocked with some classic toys Barbie dolls, Legos, GI Joes, whoopie cushions that are always big sellers during the holidays.

But in the narrow, slightly cluttered aisles, it also has a new wave of gifts popular during the holiday season, like Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards and the latest superhero action figures.

"You can't go wrong with Spider-Man. He's cool," Mr. Sullivan says.

Stores like Sullivan's are increasingly rare. The top toy retailers are discount stores, like Wal-Mart and Kmart, or national chains, like Toys R Us and KB Toys, according to the Toy Industry Association.

The top 10 retailers have about 60 percent of the U.S. market, according to TIA figures. Mom-and-pop operations sell less than 7 percent of all toys in the United States.

"It's not easy. It gets harder every year," Mr. Sullivan says of competition from the chains. "But we offer lots of service, we rap, it's fun for [customers] to come here. We know all the kids by name."

Thomas L. Sullivan, who goes by the nickname "Mister" and is now 82 years old, founded Sullivan's in 1954. The shop is still a family affair. Mister still keeps the books by hand his son, Tam, manages day-to-day operations, and Tam's wife, Raminta, also works in the deceptively large store.

"It was his brainchild, his approach and a neighborhood feel that has passed down through generations," the younger Mr. Sullivan says of his father's approach. "That's a key element, passed down through generations."

Tam Sullivan, 45, started managing the store about four years ago. His father asked him to return to the District from Florida, where he was working as a musician.

The second of five children, Mr. Sullivan worked in the store when he was growing up. The return was not planned and coincided with a weakening economy and rising rents.

But the store is still a fixture in the upscale District neighborhood and the manager says that he's optimistic it will be around for another 50 years.

"I'm hopeful. I'm learning. I think that due to the fact that we've been in business so long it's such a plus that could help us overcome a sagging economy," he says.

Mr. Sullivan's workday starts sometime after 10 a.m., when the store opens, and involves doing just about everything.

When a truck pulls up with a load of X-Men action figures, he helps unload it through some heavy rain, checks the inventory and writes a check to pay for the merchandise.

They are close-out items that allow the store to earn a slightly better margin. Every little bit helps, Mr. Sullivan says.

A record of the transaction is entered by hand. There is no computer in Sullivan's somewhat disheveled back office out of deference to the boss, who likes to keep the books the old-fashioned way.

A lot of the toys end up in a basement warehouse everything is walked down a long flight of stairs which is stocked floor-to-ceiling with goods and would be a fantasyland for many children.

Other times Mr. Sullivan is sticking prices on toys and stocking shelves, joking with employees and talking with customers.

Listening to Sullivan's clientele is the store's version of a focus group. When a few different customers request the same product, it often goes on store shelves.

Educational toys fit part of the bill. "It's a definite request and a definite niche," he says.

And gag gifts, like loaded dice and squishy frogs that stick to walls and ceilings. But not video games.

"We can't go into it. We'd have to open up a whole wing to take care of video games. And the margin is very low," he says.

And sometimes stocking the store simply involves watching the weather reports.

Mr. Sullivan bought 72 snow sleds before last week's storm to complement the two dozen already in stock. At $10 to $20 each, they all sold in a day.

"There wasn't a single one left," Mr. Sullivan says.

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